Steve  Coomes reports in Nation’s Restaurant News that while quick-service restaurants have made great strides in creating healthful items for dinner and lunch menus, breakfast has been another matter — until now. The slow march of healthful items into the breakfast lineup appears to be quickening, and sleepy morning customers seem to like what they are waking up to.

Dunkin Donuts reports that its DDSmart healthful breakfast items rolled out last year are selling very well, and Starbucks says its low-fat, low-calorie baked goods and protein plates, also introduced in 2008, are attracting hungry customers as well. Like several other operators, Jamba Juice earlier this year added hot oatmeal to its breakfast menu, and Emerald City smoothies has bulked up its breakfast menu with granola. Even Krystal, better known for its two-bite, onion-spiked hamburgers, has added a breakfast bacon scrambler that boasts only 370 calories.

Philip Smith, corporate executive chef at Bruegger’s in Burlington, Vt., says both customer habits and traditional thinking by QSR operators have previously slowed the addition of healthful items to morning menus.

“A lot of [thinking] is focused around the egg, meat and cheese triumvirate as a hot breakfast staple,” he said. “It’s easy to make a salad-based lunch or dinner entrée, but it’s harder at breakfast,” where vegetables are less frequently featured.

Menu developers, he added, also have leaned too long on less healthful ingredients such as fat, salt, sugar and other carbohydrates to boost flavor. But he believes many are back in the kitchen examining new options.

In September, 290-unit Bruegger’s introduced a Veggie Melt Egg Sandwich limited-time offer centered on what Smith called an “egg white palette” packing 320 calories and seasoned with grilled red and green peppers, red onions, Swiss cheese and a spicy tomato sauce. Healthful items, he insisted, must be highly flavored if customers are to be lured away from other choices.

“We’ve used the spicy tomato sauce, a sun-dried tomato paste and a chipotle pesto on our sandwiches, and they brought a lot of flavor,” he said. “When you get that kind of flavor, all of a sudden you don’t just have an egg white, it’s much more interesting. Start adding vegetables and you’re building on it.”

Stan Frakenthaler, executive chef at Dunkin’ Brands in Canton, Mass., agreed, saying flavor, not health claims, is what sells.

“With our DDSmart line, the customer does not feel like they’re trading down in their experience because it doesn’t taste good,” he said. As a customer, “it’s simple for me: I’m not getting bland egg whites or feeling like I have to get something bland. I want real flavor.”

The chain’s DDSmart line at breakfast includes five items: two on flatbreads, two on English muffins and one wrap. Fillings include eggs, cheese, ham and turkey sausage, and range in calories from 170 to 350.

Frankenthaler said some of his Dunkin’ peers expected younger, health-conscious consumers would drive DDSmart sales, but that hasn’t been the case.

“It wasn’t just women living in cities,” he said. “It was college students, men, women, old, young, people in cities, rural areas and small towns.”

Read more: Nation’s Restaurant News